M. Jagadesh Kumar, Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Hauz Khas, New Delhi-110016 http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala
If you happen to visit Paris next time, try cycling across the Paris city using the bicycles offered by Velib, an initiative run by Paris Town Hall since 2007. This is a big bicycle sharing facility in the world with 20,000 bicycles at your service 24/7. You can move around the entire Paris city with bicycles available in 1800 bicycle stations at every 300 meter distance . With growing vehicular congestion, rising fuel costs and choking pollution, the homo sapiens are now increasingly drawn to the good wheels. There are many cities in the world which are bicycle friendly such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris in Europe and Boulder, Chicago, Davis, Ottawa, Portland, San Francisco in North America, Beijing in Asia, Cape Town, Bogota and Perth in Australia .
London city in the United Kingdom has implemented a bicycle sharing scheme known as Barclays Cycle Hire or BCH in 2010. In 2012, BCH had about 8000 bicycles with 570 docking stations . Barcelona’s new transport system, known as Bicing has more than 400 bike stations placed strategically near bus stops and metro stations . Many North American cities are actively promoting increased use of bicycles as an alternative mode of transportation through large public campaigns and by investing in bicycle infrastructure and bicycle sharing programs . In Munster, a German town with a population of 273,000, people use bicycles more often (37.8%) than cars (36.4%) as the main mode of transportation .
Despite the fact that the world is rediscovering the wheels without fuel, India seems to be going the other way – the automobile style. The economic survey of Delhi (2012-2013) tells us a disturbing trend – the number of households in Delhi owning a bicycle has come down from 37.6 % in 2001 to 30.6 % in 2011 . This is either because India is advancing economically letting more people to own motorized vehicles or Indian roads are becoming notoriously the least safe places to ride any vehicle, leave alone bicycles. Safety of bicyclists is of no concern to the road planners in India anyway [8,9] and that perhaps acts as the biggest deterrent to the people to “hit” the road on their bicycles.
Not hearsay – It is scientific:
While you do not have to be a rocket scientist to realize that using bicycles for transport in place of fuel based vehicles has vast benefits in terms of health and environment, there are indeed systematic scientific studies to quantify such paybacks. A contemporary scrutiny in New Zealand using the data available in the urban settings shows that a mere shift of 5% of the distance travelled by vehicles to bicycling would lead to a reduction of approximately 223 million kilometers travelled by vehicles each year. This can result in a saving of about 22 million liters of fuel and therefore a reduction in the transport-related greenhouse emissions .
A number of investigations also confirm the individual and population-level health benefits of using bicycles. A recent analysis of Swedish children, conducted over a period of 6 years, has shown that those who used bicycles to commute to the school have improved their cardiorespiratory fitness more than those using passive modes of commuting including walking . Bicycling has also been shown to reduce the cardiometabolic risk factors leading to a potential prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease (CVD) . Bicycling leads to less weight gain particularly among overweight and obese women .
But where are the safe roads for bicycle riders?
A study of bicyclists in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area has shown that well-connected neighbourhood streets and bicycle specific infrastructure has encouraged more adults to bicycling for utilitarian purposes . Safe roads are, therefore, an essential pre-requisite for popularizing bicycle usage. Changing the Indian road landscape to make them bicycle friendly is not in our hands as individual citizens. The best we could do is to create awareness and bring pressure on the policy makers to act. Like many other peaceful public campaigns or agitations, we never know how long it would take for public pressure to succeed in bringing such changes to make the Indian road bicycle friendly. We, however, cannot keep waiting eternally. But, as individuals and small communities consisting of students, staff and faculty in Universities and higher educational institutes, can we do something to bring the bicycling back into our lives?
If you leave out the treacherous Indian roads and highways, are there any safe roads in India where we can use bicycles for short distance transport? Luckily, the answer is yes. The best places to start such initiatives could be the campuses of Indian universities and higher educational institutes where a large population of students, staff and faculty live and commute on campus. Why not make a beginning on these campuses and showcase it as a model to emulate by the rest of the society? There are many North American universities which have successfully implemented campus bicycle sharing programs  and they compete with each other in promoting such programs.
What about accidents even on campus roads?
Road users in India excel in disregarding the traffic rules. Even bicycle riders need to respect the road rules! Cyclists are frequently prone to accidents, particularly if they are seen as a minority on the roads jostling for space. Most accidents involving bicyclists occur at the road intersections. However, there is now strong empirical evidence to show that the chances of a bicyclist involving in a collision with a motor vehicle are inversely proportional to the number of people bicycling on the roads – a pattern that has been shown to be consistent across the cities and countries around the world . Motorists adjust their behaviour and reduce their vehicle’s speed when they see a large number of people bicycling on the roads . This is another reason why more people should be using the bicycles on their campuses.
Are there any Indian initiatives?
Unlike in the American universities, which are rated for their pro-active bicycle sharing programs by the League of American Bicyclists , campus bicycle initiatives are not yet popular in Indian educational institutes. An interesting initiative in Bangalore city called “Namma Cycle” is worth to take notice of by all the educational institutes with large populations on their campuses . The objective of the Namma Cycle concept is to raise public awareness about environmental friendly transport options for easy connectivity. In Kannada language, “namma” means ours. In the place of “my bicycle” or “your bicycle”, the “our bicycle” concept is expected to encourage the idea of community sharing and community ownership of bicycles. Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore is the first top Indian educational institute which has adopted the Namma Cycle model with a modest beginning of 150 bicycles and four bicycle stations. IISc plans to soon scale up this experiment by adding additional bicycles and bicycle stations. We need more such examples. Student-led bicycle initiatives are bound to succeed since they are in a majority on any campus.
We have no road space in our campus. What can we do?
Existing campuses may not have enough road space to create dedicated bicycle specific tracks and it is easy to brush away any suggestions for introducing bicycle initiatives claiming it is too difficult to implement. In such cases, there are other options available such as “sharrows” or shared lane markings to provide guidance to both the bicyclist and motorist by means of signage painted on the road. The sharrows are often colored, like in the Stanford University, to alert the motorists that they are expected to share the road with the bicyclists. Sharrows will also minimize the wrong-way of bicycling by encouraging the bicyclists to confine themselves to the shared part of the road. Creation of a combination of (i) sharrows on narrow roads, (ii) contiguous bicycle specific tracks on wider roads, (iii) safe intersections or round-abouts to minimize conflicts between bicyclists and motorists, (iv) secure bicycle parking spaces to minimize thefts, (v) appropriate road safety signage and (vi) 24/7 bicycle repair stands should still be a possibility in old campuses. Remember that Amsterdam did not have a bicycle initiative program before 1970’s and commuters used only motorized vehicles. However, a sustained effort by the policy makers and the commuters has now resulted in making the city a bicyclist’s paradise in the world.
When we build new educational campuses, the regulatory authorities should make it mandatory for the Universities to create the best bicycle infrastructure including dedicated bicycle paths and vehicle free zones where only bicycling or walking is permitted. Appropriate laws and policies should be in place to prevent any new higher educational institute from building their campus without such a commitment.
Pro-active measures are the key:
The perceived opinion of others about you using a bicycle does not really affect your decision to use a bicycle. The factors that influence the use of a bicycle depend on awareness, direct trip-based benefits and safety factors . To create public awareness on the usefulness of bicycle usage, electronic media and newspapers should encourage such efforts by giving a wide publicity. Bicycle manufacturers, bicycling communities and administrators of the University campuses should join hands in bringing the bicycles back to the center-stage by creating bicycle friendly campus transport infrastructure.
Proactive support from the administrators of educational institutes would play an important role in encouraging bicycling. They need to work out policies which support and sustain bicycle infrastructure, road usage planning and restrictions on motorized vehicle usage. They need to study fresh ideas, examine alternate options suitable for the specific needs of their campuses and implement them to increase the bicycle usage. Many studies have shown a close link between proactive interventions by the administrators and increased usage of bicycles . The bicycle is no longer only for the poor who cannot afford to have an automobile. It is a must possession for everyone in a futuristic 21st century which will see a sizeable proportion of the world population living in congested cities.
What are you waiting for?
If you are a campus living lucky person, stash away your car keys in the cupboard or avoid using the campus bus transport and leap onto your bicycle. Ride your bicycle with the conviction that you are bettering yourself and the planet that sustains you. Get started. Do it today. There is no time to hold your fire for tomorrow.
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- The economic survey of Delhi (2012-2013), Chapter 12: Transport- available at http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/DoIT_Planning/planning/our+services1/economic+survey+of+delhi+2012-13
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